Rudolf Steiner's Epistemology (Kant and Hume)

Rudolf Steiner's Epistemology (Kant and Hume)


Rudolf Steiner's Epistemology

Mark Hancock
Spring 1999

Due to the failure to address the hidden assumptions inherent in Immanuel Kant's epistemological question, philosophy has been "philosophizing into the blue." Over a century ago Rudolf Steiner's Truth and Knowledge and Philosophy of Freedom were published. They gave an epistemology that claims to contain no unjustified assumptions. I intend to argue that this is the case. After portraying some main features of Steiner's philosophical writings, I will examine and expound on his treatment of David Hume's approach to causality. Particular importance will be placed upon the scientific work of Goethe, and of those who approach science as he did, as this  approach implicitly contains the epistemology developed by Rudolf Steiner. I will also develop Steiner's argument that the "thing in itself" is a meaningless concept that has no place in philosophical discussion. In the course of the following discussion, it will become apparent that epistemology, which necessitates thinking about thinking, leads the thinker to the conscious experiencing of his own spiritual reality. All of these points culminate in the conclusion that the activity of knowing is free from the hard determination of space and time. Thus, it is a spiritual activity. It will be argued that, unlike Kant's view, all knowledge is based in experience and it is a groundless play of concepts to posit knowledge that is not based in experience. Yet the same certainty Kant put into the "things-in-themselves" will be found to rest in our own creation, our knowledge.

It is not the purpose of this paper to belittle the contributions of Immanuel Kant. Just as in an evolutionary sense humanity's previous development was necessary for its existence today, Kant's work was a necessary. He was responsible in good part for establishing a path toward a critical epistemology. Philosophers who reach a certain development can show the path to later thinkers. Aristotle is a good example. He was arguably the culmination of Greek thought, but he stood upon the achievements and mistakes of those before him.

It would be a grave error to mimic our previous biological evolution  while attempting to live in our present age. Likewise it would be a mistake to address the question of epistemology with the same presuppositions as Kant. In the physical world wrong assumptions are more or less quickly corrected. If I assume that I will not be subject to gravity when I jump out my window, my mistake will become apparent to me. In the realm of philosophy this is not the case. Assumptions are allowed to become as weighty as truths and can become the airy foundations for the most weighty of metaphysics. This is a favorable aspect to the science of problem-solving, where all work is done assuming that a problem exists and then thinking out all possible solutions. Assumptions cause great mischief in epistemology. Not all assumptions are wrong but if the science of knowing can achieve a firm ground it must not rest upon any assumptions. The only antidote is to root them out and this necessitates a starting point which includes no presuppositions. Naturally, this is one of the hardest parts of philosophy. There have been so many failures that one might doubt it to be possible.

"Now the proper problem of pure reason is contained in the question: How are synthetic judgments possible a priori?" Kant sees this as the main problem of epistemology. "Whether metaphysics stands or falls depends on the solution of this problem." Every word hereafter Kant dedicates to clarifying, defending, expounding and strengthening the answer he puts forth to this problem.

The  solution is not justified until the question is shown to be free from presuppositions. It can be imagined that one could put forward the most coherent answer to the question: "How does this enormous apricot we are living on function as a home for us?" But the answers to this question can not be considered true until the question is shown to be free of assumptions. We must actually be living on an enormous apricot.

In the science of knowledge, even the capacity to arrive at knowledge must be investigated. Kant arrives at his question through a study of philosophy and reason.  Steiner points out how all the problems in the whole history of epistemology are discussed in Kant's Critique of Pure Reason.

A Brief Sketch of Kant's Starting Point

Kant divides cognitions into two types, contingent and necessary. Kant calls cognitions that require no previous experience, are necessary and universally true, a priori cognitions.

If someone has undermined the foundation of his house, we say that he could have known a priori that the house would cave in, i.e., he did not have to wait for the experience of its actually caving in. And yet he could not have known this completely a priori. For he did first have to find out through experience that bodies have weight and hence fall when their support is withdrawn. In what follows therefore, we shall mean by a priori cognitions not those that occur independently of this or that experience, but those that occur absolutely independently of all experience. They contrast with empirical cognitions, which are those that are possible only a posteriori, i.e.,  through experience.

Kant gives us as an example of an a priori cognition the proposition "all triangles have three sides." He claims that this is a statement which is known independently of experience. One could not imagine experiencing the world any other way. Kant would consider the claim: "all the shirts that I own are blue" to be an a posteriori cognition.

Kant makes a distinction between judgments that he terms analytical and synthetic. "In all judgments in which we think the relation of a subject to the predicate, this relation is possible in two ways. Either the predicate B belongs to the subject A as something that is covertly contained in this concept A; or B, though connected with concept A lies quite outside it. In the first case I call the judgment analytic;in the second, synthetic." An example of an analytic judgment is "all things that float are buoyant." The concept "buoyant" would be contradicted by the concept "things that do not float". We cannot think of a buoyant object without thinking of it floating. There is a principle of non-contradiction present in analytic judgments.

A judgment such as: "All bodies are heavy" is considered synthetic by Kant because he claims that it is always through experience that we know that a body is heavy so the concept heaviness is not necessarily going to contradict the concept body. It is possible to think of bodies which have no weight.

A philosopher could view the pure sciences such as math and physics as sciences based on analytic judgments. One thought would be inherent in the first without the need of any experience. Kant does not see the matter this way. "If the claims of science, mathematics, and metaphysics are all analytic, then the apparent problem of their a priori status disappears. But it is exactly here that Kant makes one of his most original contributions.  . . If analytic claims are true just by virtue of the relations among our ideas, then they would not seem to have any relation to the world around us." Of course, we use mathematics  and physics in the construction of automobiles and in the building of houses, both with amazing success. Kant saw that this view leads to the difficult problem of showing how the pure sciences could be related to the world at all.

Kant would like to claim, and in fact does claim that "All theoretical sciences of reason contain synthetic a priori judgments as principles." How then can we make such judgments a priori? Kant's answer lies in his "Copernican revolution". It is not a matter of that which we experience being ordered independent of experience by objects independent of us. It is possible to make synthetic judgments a priori as long as what we experience agrees with, independently of experience, what we give to experience. By the same token, as Kant will show in the Transcendental Dialectic, "synthetic a priori judgments that go beyond all possible experiences (make assertions about things-in-themselves) cannot be justified theoretically at all." Kant turns the whole question of knowledge inside out in order to show that synthetic a priori judgments are possible. "The standard view in epistemology is that our thoughts about objects conform to what the objects themselves are like. Kant offers a new perspective. He urges us to consider vindicating our knowledge claims by inquiring whether the objects of which we can have knowledge must conform to our ways of knowing." Kant assumes that we have synthetic a priori knowledge and endeavors to show how such knowledge is possible. Previous philosophers made such an approach appealing due to their comments on the implausibility of the other types of knowledge.

The Presuppositions of Kant's Epistemology

What if the question which Kant put forward is found to contain borrowed assumptions? If these are found to be wrong, the whole edifice of thought which he erected to answer the question would fall. It is not difficult for an open-minded thinker to find that Kant bases his work on assumptions. Guyer finds that Kant made certain assumptions in the formation of his epistemological question. "Begging what might seem a large question indeed, Kant here assumes that these connections among concepts or judgments are universal and necessary and must therefore be known a priori rather than a posteriori, and he asks what the source of such a priori knowledge can be." Though Guyer does not delve much more deeply than this, his observation is an important one. Volkelt says that, "Kant starts from the positive assumption that a necessary and universal knowledge exists as an actual fact." It may be the case that there is no necessary and universal knowledge, or, as Steiner finds, it may be the case that necessary and universal knowledge only exists through our activity with the world and it doesn't exist independently out in the world but in connection with the thinker. Volkelt goes on, "These presuppositions which Kant never specifically attempted to prove, are so contrary to a proper theory of knowledge that one must seriously ask oneself whether the Critique of Pure Reason is valid as critical epistemology." Just as in the history of thought a later philosopher will make observations based on the shortcomings of an earlier thinker, Steiner makes use of the uncritical nature of Kant's epistemology as a stepping stone to an "epistemology free of presuppositions."

Steiner points out the two presuppositions inherent in Kant's epistemological question. "One presupposition is that we need other means of gaining knowledge besides experience, the second is that all knowledge gained through experience is only approximately valid." By "approximately valid" Steiner is pointing to Kant's claim that though our experience can be subjected to the laws of thought and we can make sense of it, ultimate reality lies in the unknowable "things in themselves" which lie behind the experience. The thought form: A, if A then B/ B is valid as far as one may tell in the phenomenal world but it may be the case that something completely different underlies this thought form in the noumenal world. These presuppositions can be found throughout the Prolegomena and the beginning of the Critique of Pure Reason. "First of all, we must observe that properly mathematical propositions are always judgment a priori, and not empirical, because they carry with them necessity, which cannot be obtained from experience. But if this be not conceded to me, very well; I shall confine my assertion to pure mathematics, the very concept of which implies that it contains pure a priori and not empirical cognition." Kant does not show that mathematics exists as an a priori science. If we press him here he merely limits the sphere of his claim but offers no proof that it is true.

Again in the Critique, Kant makes these same claims with insufficient grounding. "Hence you must, won over by the necessity with which this concept of substance forces itself upon you, admit that this concept resides a priori in your cognitive power." We are missing the premise here that "if something is necessary, then it must be a priori, in the sense that it is independent of experience." Kant here implicitly denies any capacity for a basis of necessary knowledge through experience.

Kant's view is that mathematics and other pursuits are independent of experience. But since we are not born conscious of possessing a priori truths, there must be an experience of them. 5+7=12 is not a proposition that is necessarily true to us until we see it as being necessarily true. This seeing of it means that it must present itself and we must experience this presentation.

Another example of Kant's presuppositions follows. "Mathematics provides us with a splendid example of how much we can achieve, independently of experience, in a priori cognition." Kant takes it as given, after limited reflection, that mathematics is independent of experience. Kant investigates the proposition 7+5=12. He concludes that the sum 12 is not contained in 7 and 5. It is what Kant calls the power of intuition that can find the concept 12 and necessitates that one understands 7+5=12. Kant holds that experience approaches one through intuition and is ordered by the laws of this faculty. One could not have experience unless these propositions are correct.

Steiner finds this conclusion and ones similar to it to be incoherent. "It is impossible that I have absolutely no point of reference in the subject-concept which leads me to the predicate-concept. For, both concepts were won by my intellect, and won from something that in itself is unified." Both subject concepts, 5 and 7, and the predicate concept, 12, were achieved through the intellect. Steiner argues that it is not 7, 5, and 12 that are primary in this thought operation, but magnitude. Each number is the number of repetitions. When one thinks of 7+5, one is "grasping 12 mathematical units in thought, only not all at once, but rather in two parts." If one thinks of the total, 12, there is no difference in what is being expressed, Steiner makes similar criticisms of Kant's other examples.

A Brief Sketch of Steiner's Starting Point of Epistemology

It is only from establishing a proper view point that epistemological principles can be discovered. Steiner criticizes Kant for laying down starting principles which are not obviously starting principles.

That we acquire knowledge independently of all experience, and that the insight gained from experience is of general value only to a limited extent, can only be conclusions derived from some other investigation. The assertions must definitely be preceded by an examination both of the nature of experience and of knowledge. Examination of experience could lead to the first principle; examination of knowledge, to the second.

Steiner shows that if one would make claims about the nature of x, then one must investigate x. It is true that there may be many ways of investigating x. Nevertheless, making claims as Kant does without sufficient investigation can not be the basis for critical epistemology.

Steiner points out that an objection to this examination of knowledge is that it "must lead the reader to where the starting point, free of all presuppositions, is to be found." How does one find this starting point when in our lives what we know is so remote from this starting point, if it even exists? That our daily knowledge is quite far from this starting point is clear. In our daily thinking we are concerned not with the thinking but with the objects of thinking. Rarely do we say, "I am thinking of a hat." We normally say, "This is a hat." Even when we do say the former we are not usually concerned with our activity of thinking. In the investigation of thinking we must investigate that which arrives at these judgments which is taken for granted in everyday life. Thus we are led to the task of thinking about thinking.

Steiner replies that these assertions must be taken up as genuine concerns of the epistemologist.

It is a necessity for every epistemologist to come to such a purely didactic arrangement concerning the starting point of this science. But this must always be limited merely to showing to what extent the starting point for cognition really is the absolute start; it must be presented in purely self evident, analytical sentences and. . . contain no assertions which will influence the content of the subsequent discussion. It is also incumbent on the epistemologist to show that his starting point is really free of all presuppositions.

It is important to the subsequent discussion that this paragraph be taken seriously. Steiner is saying that a proper approach to epistemology must neither force claims upon one nor present a mere theory. This is evident from the word didactic. Later we find that it must point to the observation of thinking.

Raising the objection that claiming an approach to knowledge must be self-evident is a presupposition, contradicts the ground from which one makes this objection. Necessitating that an approach is self-evident is equivocal to saying that it must not pre-suppose anything.

Here we do find a presupposition, though one that after examination disappears. It seems that in this investigation, thinking is presupposed. This objection dissolves when it is recognized that to make this objection, or any other, one must think. One may put one's entire trust into thinking.

A person highly revered by the author has objected that the use of the word "one" presupposes a self. At this point, however, the word "one" cannot be said to be used as more than a turn of phrase. Only by thinking might the question, "What is the self?" be answered. One might also object that the word "thinking" is up to interpretation and this presupposes standards for interpretation. This is true, but it also presupposes an interpreter, and this interpreter can only be thinking.

Steiner takes the objections to his position and utilizes them to create guidelines. I stress this importance Steiner lays upon freedom from presuppositions because it is here that one must test his philosophy. The examination of his starting point will be the "proof of the pudding."

Steiner examines the arguments raised against knowledge and finds them to be forceless. In the process of examining these arguments it becomes clear that they must presuppose some ground for their claim, indeed, they must presuppose the starting point to knowledge itself. When the conclusions to these arguments are brought into epistemology, they become prejudices. I will present a brief overview of Steiner's epistemology, covering objections and outlining some key thoughts. I will portray how Steiner's view relates to the "thing in itself" of Kant afterwards.

Steiner's Treatment of Critical Idealism

Steiner begins by showing that the arguments in support of critical idealism are without any force of proof. "Ever since Kant, the idea that the world given to us is merely our representation has gained a strong foothold in philosophy" One need only look to Schopenhauer's claim that "the world is my mental picture" for affirmation of this view. This is in large part due to the findings of science. The reasons are physical, psycho-physical, physiological, as well as philosophical.

Physics presents a picture of the world in which the objects that are the cause of our perceptions are not perceived themselves. The cause of a perception of a smell is concluded to be our individual response to vibrations of small bodies. "Likewise it is found that light, color and heat are something purely subjective." Our senses might be concluded to deceive us as to the inner reality of what they present to us. "The physicist believes he is justified in assuming that a material body does not affect our senses of touch and warmth by direct contact, because there must be a certain distance. . . between the body and the place where it touches the skin." The success of the atomic theory has led to it being concluded to have real or dynamic existence. Atoms generally have a certain amount of space between the electron shell of one and the electron shell of the other. They must therefore never touch but work on each other over a distance. This conclusion supports the idea of the unreliability of the senses because if our senses are affected by contact of objects, and no object is found to contact them directly, then the highest degree of skepticism can take root as to the reliability of our senses. What necessitates the occurrences in the space in between?

Further arguments compound these previous ones. It is a well known fact that a slight pressure on the corner of the eye will produce a sensation of light. Seeing double also accompanies this act. Mueller's work in the science of specific sense -energies contributes to the conclusion that "there is only one kind of phenomenon in the external world, namely motion, and that the many aspects of the world which we perceive derive essentially from the reaction of our senses to this phenomenon."

Further findings in science add to these. The sense organs themselves must alter the material they receive in order to conduct it along to the nerve center in the brain. In order to do this the material of our sensations must be converted to electrical impulses. Steiner also brings forward Hartmann's philosophical comments on this matter. We are not conscious at all of the material occurrences going on in our brain, but we are altered by the incoming sensations in a way that brings forward a change within us. "Thus all that the subject perceives are modifications of its own soul-condition and nothing else."

Steiner shows that the conclusion that is derived from these findings, that the external world is merely represented to us in forms devoid of any trace of this external world so that all we can know of the world is a subjective re-presentation, contradicts its own premises. Showing these arguments to collapse is important for Steiner's project because he must show that views which contradict the observations he makes later are themselves contradictory.

If all we know of the world are our mental pictures, which don't correspond to the real entities of the world, then arguments for theories of how we build up these mental pictures must transfer the naive realism which they attempt to refute to the components of their theories. The ideas: ear, eye, atom, nerve cell, etc. are examples of this. The conclusions of these theories (that one can know only one's mental pictures) negate their own premises (that there are such dynamically real entities as above). This does not mean the view that the perceived world is merely the subject's mental picture is incorrect; it does leave this view with no force of proof. One could make the argument, "There is a large monkey jumping on the moon: therefore there is no large monkey jumping on the moon. The fact that the premise and the conclusion are contradictory does not mean that the conclusion is false; it leaves the conclusion unproven. One must wait until after the examination of experience to conclude whether such a view is correct. Such a conclusion must not be carried into the consideration of a starting point. If it is, then it becomes a prejudice.

The Given

Steiner seeks the starting point for epistemology in what presents itself before thinking plays a role. He calls this the "directly given world- picture." It is "that picture of the world which presents itself to man before he has subjected it to the processes of knowledge in any way, before he has asserted or decided anything at all about it by means of thinking." "In it, nothing appears distinguished from, related to, or determined by, anything else." When one carefully weeds out the concepts which hold together phenomena, one can form some picture of how the world presents itself before any thinking activity. This picture is similar to the "this that has no what" of William James. Before thinking sets to work, the phenomena that comprise a  chair appear as percepts of hardness, smoothness, a random assortment of brown, etc., none of which is distinguished from one another. "This 'directly given' picture is what flits past us, disconnected, but still undifferentiated." This directly given contains distinctions about neither object nor subject, spirit nor matter. The possibility at this point is still left open that the whole world is a mere representation and that there is no self.

Steiner calls the percept any element that is given . These include all sensations, feelings, and concepts. Only in thinking can any relationship between these percepts be decided.

When epistemology starts from the assumption that all the elements just mentioned constitute the content of our consciousness, the following question immediately arises: How is it possible for us to go beyond our consciousness and recognize actual existence; where can the leap be made from our subjective experiences to what lies beyond them? When such an assumption is not made, the situation is different. Both consciousness and the representation of the "I" are, to begin with, only parts of the directly given and the relationship of the latter to the two former must be discovered by means of cognition.

Steiner is saying here that before our thinking activity, the representation of the "I" and consciousness are percepts with no more value than the rest of the wide array of percepts. There is no more or less importance to these elements of the given world than there is to the percept of the color red or that of a sound of a certain pitch. In order to stress the disarray of the given, consider that the percepts of the color red and the concept "redness" would not appear in any way connected.

In investigating the given world of percepts, it is imperative that all concepts that attempt to answer the question, "what is this percept?" are carefully extracted. When one is solely descriptive and refrains from making judgments it is impossible for any error to exist. A person does not make an error when he sees double; the error can only occur when he judges that there are actually duplicates of the things he sees. As long as we remain in the given, we can make no errors, but there remains only an aggregate of percepts. There can be no presuppositions while remaining in the given because a presupposition relies on an unexamined judgment. Since all judgments have been removed from the given, presuppositions are impossible.

If one would like to find the source of knowledge, one must first clear away all existing knowledge. One never actually experiences this state of the purely given world in ordinary life. Thus the line between our thinking and that which presents itself to our thinking must be made by means of concepts. But the concepts used to draw this line are not used as items of knowledge, "They have the purely negative function of removing from sight all that belongs to knowledge and of leading us to the point where knowledge begins." The concepts which we use to draw this line are themselves disregarded while in the given.

One may object, how are we to know that this distinction is correct? Couldn't some essential element concerning our knowledge be ruled out by this consideration? To resolve this question, one must examine the concepts used and show that by their very nature, this line is drawn correctly, with nothing potentially left out. Steiner draws this line between the given and the concept. A concept is found to be a principle by which the given is ordered into a unity. This is evident from a consideration of thinking upon the given world. Upon examination, these two parts of the world are found to be drawn in such a way that nothing is left out.

It may be objected that Steiner is presupposing the use of language in his starting point. One may say, "One must use language in order to think." This objection would be valid against a being creating other beings with the capacity to think. Language would first need to be created as a platform for thinking. But the purpose of our study is not to create thinking beings but to understand thinking itself. In order to understand language's relation to thinking, one must first think about it. It may be objected that we must first use language in order to think of this relation in the first place, but in order to use language, one must first think. Our language use is dependent on our thinking.

A person highly revered by the author has objected that it is hard to see how one can think of language outside of language. This is quite true, in order to think one must use language. But again, we seek not to create beings who think, we seek to understand thinking. In order to do this it is not enough that one uses language; one must first think to see that one is using language. In thinking of thinking we do not use language; we use language to communicate this experience.

Steiner's View of the Concept and Thinking as Bridge Builder

With further investigation of the given, one finds the point of attack. Our concepts are both given as part of this world-content and they go beyond the given world because they are not merely given. Our concepts are received through our own activity. "In this sense, the given also includes what according to its very nature is not-given." "The latter would appear, to begin with, as formally a part of the given, but on closer scrutiny would reveal its true nature of its own accord." We can understand concepts as a part of the given world in that we experience them; but when we understand them to be products of our own thinking activity, we may trust them to directly show us the world. An objection to this would rely on concepts and thus assume it to be true in order to refute it. If we are to understand the given world, we must first produce the concepts that enable us to do so.

"Intellectual seeing" is what Steiner calls the form in which concepts are given to us. "In intellectual seeing the content must be contained within the thought-form itself." For instance, as Wittgenstein so remarkably observed in his Philosophical Investigations, there are certain criteria for applying the concept, or family resemblance, to a group of people in the same family; but these criteria exist in a state of openness towards the phenomena which might fulfill them. For example, a cousin may have similar eyebrows as an uncle, and possess a pair of horns similar to a sister's. The uncle and the sister might appear nothing alike. It is only through the concept of "family resemblance" that they can be seen to belong in the same group. Our thinking orders the phenomena in order to make sense of it.

Steiner notes the following, "I can only produce this principle [in this case the concept of the family resemblance] myself in the act of cognition; I cannot derive it from the objects, for the definition of the objects is only to be obtained means of the principle." If we claim that we see family resemblances between the cousin, sister and uncle because they are in the same family, this would be inaccurate. They appear in the same family because of the concept of family resemblance which our thinking produces and connects with the percepts of the relatives.

Steiner speaks more about concepts: "However, they must be considered in the form which they possess while still quite free of any empirical content. If, for example, the pure idea of causality is to be grasped, then one must not choose a particular instance of causality or the sum total of causality; it is essential to take hold of the pure concept, causality." It is the subject that produces the principles which unify the disconnected world picture; but this is not an arbitrary act.

When thinking restores a relationship between two separate sections of the world-content, it does not do so arbitrarily. Thinking waits for what comes to light of its own accord as the result of restoring the relationship. And it is this result alone which is knowledge of that particular section of the world content. If the latter were unable to express anything about itself through that particular relationship established by thinking, then this attempt made by thinking would fail, and one would have to try again.

As an illustration of this let us imagine that a person sees an image of another person in an abandoned building he is investigating. The concept that the percepts he has received correspond to another person in his vicinity may give him a surprise at first, but when certain curious things occur such as the simultaneous movement of himself and this image, this thought is abandoned with relief and replaced with a thought that the image is a reflection of himself in a window. Concepts of reflection and shining surfaces and the shape of his own body allow him to legitimately "restore the relationship" by seeing the phenomena in a certain light.

Thinking as Based in the Given

Steiner points out what he sees as Kant's major shortfall:

When Kant speaks of 'the synthetic unity of apperception' it is evident that he had some inkling of what we have shown here to be an activity of thinking, the purpose of which is to organize the world-content systematically. But the fact that he believed that the a priori laws of pure science could be derived from the rules according to which this synthesis takes place, shows how little this inkling brought to his consciousness the essential task of thinking. He did not realize that this synthetic activity of thinking is only a preparation for discovering natural laws as such.

Steiner is saying that we certainly must arrange the phenomena presented to us in order to understand them. However, our thinking always has its basis in the given. Our thinking arranges the given in a manner derived from the percepts. We may then look at this synthesis in an inward way in order for the concept, or law connecting the phenomena, to "present itself as given." This is never independent of experience, but totally based in it. As Goethe says, "My perception is itself a thinking, and my thinking a perceiving." Thinking always has one foot in the given.

As a further illustration, one may examine the pattern of shapes on the front cover of this paper. Our thinking tries to order synthetically the shapes in the circle, but we cannot see any law that connects the shapes into a unity until the law and the phenomena are directly seen to communicate with one another through our process of thinking. The percepts of the patterns gives rise to the concept "giraffe", while the concept "giraffe" gives form to the percepts of the patterns. In order to say that the patterns form a giraffe, one must see as given this connection between concept and percepts.

Other philosophers have found this aspect to thinking as having its content based in the given. Henri Bortoft, in his writings on the philosophy implicit in Goethe's scientific work, writes:

In this way it is the being of the phenomena itself which appears as idea. It is not a question of a correspondence between an idea produced by the mind and the phenomena [percept] in nature-which would be the way our modern epistemological dualism would try to understand it. On the contrary, it is  an ontological participation of thinking in the phenomenon, so that the phenomena can dwell in thinking. It is the phenomenon itself which appears as idea, just as in a different way, it is the phenomenon which appears to the senses. The difficulty is that here we encounter the phenomenon inwardly in the act of thinking, and this shatters our "commonsense" materialistic assumptions.

It is evident from the writings of Goethe that he based his principles on not merely the synthetic activity of thinking but this participation of thinking in the phenomenon. Perhaps this explains why patience is so important in understanding the world.

Newton attempted to explain color in a theory that puts the phenomenon of the frequency of light together with the phenomenon of the color perceived in a way that is completely arbitrary. Blue and yellow might just as well exist next to each other on the spectrum as blue and purple. Goethe saw color as "the deeds and sufferings of light." Dark is lifted by light from purple to blue. The light is darkened from yellow to orange to red. Goethe did not seek to find the relationship between colors through a content other than the given. He was able to see how the colors of the spectrum belong together, rather than merely belong together. In other words Goethe found a necessary connection where others found a constant conjunction.

Steiner speaks more on this. "Suppose, for example, that we detach one content, a, from the world-picture, and likewise another, b. If we are to gain knowledge of the law connecting a and b, then thinking must first relate a to b so that through this relationship the connection between them presents itself as given." As an illustration, one may picture the following: A billiard ball rolls along a path, slowing steadily, then stopping and reversing in direction, first slowly, then faster and faster. We also notice that the billiard ball begins at a low elevation, progresses to a higher elevation and steadily declines in elevation. Thinking takes these phenomena and conjoins them synthetically. This does not suffice in the understanding of the phenomena until the connection between the percepts (the phenomena) is brought to light by a definite concept or set of concepts. In the case of the above example, the concepts which shed light on this connection between the phenomena are gravity, mass and acceleration.

Therefore, the actual content of a law of nature is derived from the given, and the task of thinking is merely to provide the opportunity for relating the elements of the world-picture so that the laws connecting them come to light. Thus there is no question of objective laws resulting from the synthetic activity of thinking alone.

This contradicts Kant's assumption that experience can never ground our knowledge with certainty. Kant denies thinking's activity in experience; he holds that necessary knowledge can arise independently of experience.

Thinking as Overcoming Arbitrariness

The philosopher Roger Smook raises an objection to this conclusion. He quotes a passage from Steiner's, A Theory of Knowledge Based on Goethe's World Conception.

We do not at all produce a thought-content in such fashion that, in this production, we determine into what interconnections our thoughts shall enter. We merely provide the occasion through which the thought-content unfolds according to its own nature. We grasp thought a and thought b and give them the opportunity to enter into a connection according to principle by bringing them into mutual interaction one with the other. It is not our subjective organization which determines this interrelation between a and b in a certain manner, but the content of a and b is the sole determinant. The fact that a is related to b in a certain manner and not in another- upon this fact we have not the slightest influence. Our mind brings about the interconnection between thought masses only according to their own content.

Smook expresses his difficulty in understanding this passage, then raises a counterexample.

Such passages could make one despair of understanding Steiner! There simply is no adequate phenomenological basis within ordinary experience for Steiner's claim. It seems that I can, if I choose, think the most arbitrary (even indeed erroneous or contradictory) connections between ideas. Thus there is no intrinsic relationship between my mother and the man in the moon. Indeed it is contradictory to think of my mother as a man. Indeed there is not even such a thing as the man in the moon. Yet I can, if it pleases me, indulge in the thought that my mother is the man in the moon.

One is certainly free to indulge in the thought that one's mother is the man in the moon but one must realize that what one is doing is not thinking but merely indulging, indulging according to the concept "arbitrary", "erroneous", or "contradictory". Stating that one can connect the concepts "mother" and "the man in the moon" according to the concept "arbitrariness" does not show that our thinking itself is arbitrary, contradictory, or erroneous. As an illustration, one can imagine the amount of acceptance one would receive from the scientific community if one claimed to have disproved the law of magnetism with the fact that one held two magnets together with similar poles facing each other and they did not come apart (due to one forcing them together). Thinking is never arbitrary. We can only understand arbitrariness through the concept "arbitrariness" Any attempt made to limit thinking must be done by thinking itself. One may certainly have thoughts in an arbitrary fashion. The human capacity for mistakes is a result of the forming of thoughts with no corresponding percepts on the one hand, and on the other hand disregarding percepts that otherwise would lead to concepts. At the root of these processes can be found fear and desire. One may understand Aristotle's writings on tragedy as a purging of these two impostors trying to disguise themselves as thinking.

In fact, one could not make Smook's objection if the thing to which he was objecting were not true. Since by his definition, he was thinking into the passage what he understood, he would continue to miss the point. It now becomes clear why Rudolf Steiner said that love in its purest essence is the power of cognition We give to the world our forces of intellect so that the world may think in us. When we think, we do not pigeon-hole the phenomena into concepts, but the phenomena grounds our concepts.

The objection that this contradicts the fact that we produce our concepts can be refuted by analogy. If we, out of love for the action, help someone on the street, it is true that the situation will have led us to the deed, but we must not forget that we are still the ones doing it.

Other studies on work by Goethe demonstrate that he saw concepts as being rooted in the given world.

It has been mentioned several times in the discussion of animal form that the phenomenologist of nature perceives connections which have the quality of necessity. Goethe's recognition that an animal with a full set of teeth in its upper jaw cannot have horns is an illustration.

An observation of the evolution of deer is helpful here. Deer have been traced back to a species of carnivorous swamp deer which still dwell in some parts of the world. These have a full set of teeth and no antlers. In the evolution of deer, one can observe that as the antlers appeared, certain teeth recede and disappear. By itself, this fact would give modern science no reason to make Goethe's claim. The reason that this claim can not be understood by science today is because science is oriented on the material phenomena and not the connections between the phenomena, which are also phenomena. As Bortoft says:

The perception of a necessary connection is the perception of a relationship as a real factor in the phenomena, instead of being only a mental abstraction added on to what is experienced with the senses. The reality of a relationship, the necessity of a connection, is not experienced as such either by the senses alone or by the intellectual mind [the mind which prepares for this by synthesizing the phenomena]. Hence any attempt to understand this reality in terms of these faculties is bound to find that it vanishes from the phenomenon itself and appears to be only a subjective belief.

This is not to say that it is a difficult feat to experience the necessary connections between phenomena; it becomes so only when one assumes that the only faculties one can use to see these are the physical senses and the synthetic faculty of the mind. The very fact that scientists claim that there are "objects" in the outside world existing independently of us shows how untrue it is to itself in this regard. If one would like to know how the world is "in-itself", this must be how the world is for us.

Steiner's treatment of Hume demonstrates Bortoft's excellent observation. Hume could not see the necessary connections between phenomena, and concluded that causality was a concept that had no more meaning than a constant conjunction. It was necessary to explain why people say that an event caused a latter event. Therefore, Steiner notes,

Hume said that our concepts of cause and effect are due solely to habit. We so often notice that a particular event is followed by another that accordingly we form the habit of thinking of them as causally connected, i.e. we expect the second event to occur whenever we observe the first. But this viewpoint stems from a mistaken representation of the relationship concerned in causality. Suppose that I always meet the same people every day for a number of days when I leave my house; it is true that I shall then gradually come to expect the two events to follow one another, but in this case it would never occur to me to look for a causal connection between the other persons and my own appearance at the same spot. I would look to quite different elements of the world-content in order to explain the facts involved.

Though we have a habit of seeing both sets of phenomena together, it is only with the concept of causality that we can point to one set as being in a cause and effect relationship, and the other set merely as constantly conjoined. I would not say that I caused the person I met on the street to be in the spot where our paths crossed. Perhaps our places of employment and times of work cause this nexus. Hume would certainly say that he accounts for this set of occurrences in his account of causality. He would say that we so often encounter by habit conjunctions of people going to work with meeting them regularly on the street that we form our notion of causality here instead of between the event of my walking down the street and meeting the same people regularly.

But this view entirely fails to account for the fact that in this example, there are two distinct relationships of constant conjunction. There is a conjunction between our appearance at a spot (let us call this event a), and that of our meeting with a certain crowd of people (let us call this event b). There is also a conjunction between our work beginning at the same time as this crowd (let us call this event c, supposing that this is the event that we would like to call the cause of our meeting), and event b. Hume would call both of these mere conjunctions; but he would have no way of explaining why we discern one relationship as causality and the other as constantly conjoined.

Upon closer examination, one finds that Hume must imply a content (a meaning) for the concept of causality in order to even argue against it. Hume can carry the thought that our notion of causality is due solely to habit, but when he attempts to explain why we form it, his explanation relies on a content-filled concept of causality, not habit. Hume thinks he must account for the reason, or the cause, behind humanity forming causal connections. His explanation that habit causes us to form causal connections cannot account for itself here, for here there are two distinct constant conjunctions. We find our thinking is constantly conjoined with our finding of alleged causal connections between two things. Hume says that the habit of seeing two things appear one after the other is also constantly conjoined with our finding alleged causal connections. We can not answer the question, "What is the actual cause of our alleged causal connections?" by relying on habit. That is, we cannot answer this question without utilizing a concept of causality that means more than constant conjunction if we really mean by this question, "What is the constant conjunction that is constantly conjoined with us having alleged causal connections?" There are two habits, or constant conjunctions, and we must think, ordering the two phenomena according to a concept of causality that might admit of none, one, or both of the two sets of conjunctions, in order to differentiate between them. In order to do this we rely upon a content filled concept of causality.

The Contrast with Kant

Steiner calls his view monism of thought, which states that the world is originally a unity, but due to our organization, we receive it in two parts, the percept and the concept. When these two are united through thinking, one has knowledge. Our thinking makes whole the two halves of the world as they are presented to us; this whole is knowledge. Any two world theory he terms dualism. Steiner criticizes dualism for its incoherence. "It divides the whole of existence into two spheres, each of which has its own laws, and leaves these two worlds standing apart and opposed." The dualism of Kant is a good illustration of this. Kant distinguished between the phenomenal world, which is all that we perceive and know, and the noumenal world, which man can never have knowledge, but which stands behind the phenomenal world in a causal way.

It might appear that Steiner's view rests on the same dual world theory as Kant's does. There seems to be an inner world of concepts and an outer world of percepts. These percepts might be considered to be actual things. This view of Steiner dissolves when it is realized that "thing" is a concept that unites percepts, albeit in a primitive fashion.

Steiner argues that Kant's dualism is incoherent. "As long as we designate the separated parts of the world as percepts, we are simply following, in this separating out, a law of our subjectivity. If, however, we regard the sum of all percepts as the one part, and contrast with this a second part, namely, the things-in-themselves, then we are philosophizing into the blue." We have no justification for forming concepts about things which have no corresponding percepts to them. In the previous examination it was found that whenever we do this, we make a mistake. A dualistic view of the world will set limits to our capacity to have knowledge. A monistic view will not. "The limits are only transitory, and can be overcome by the progress of perception and thinking." One is limited by the amount of attention one pays to the world, and the capacity of one's thinking. An unthinking traveler and a thinker in an ivory tower are in the same position for different reasons. One must not ask, "What are the limits to human knowledge?" but rather, "What are the limits to my own knowledge?"

Steiner criticizes dualism for taking the two opposites, subject and object, and producing a pair of conceptual things which are thought responsible for what appears as subject and object, but which we can never perceive. Steiner remarks that the dualist, "Splits up the two factors concerned in the process of knowledge, namely percept and concept, into four: (1) the object in itself; (2) the percept which the subject has of the object; (3) the subject; (4) the concept which relates the percept to the object in itself." An examination of Kant will illustrate this. The "thing-in-itself" of Kant, the thing which lies behind the world that we perceive and is responsible for it's appearance, this is what Steiner classifies as "the object in itself." Kant's phenomenal world, or the world which we perceive due to the action of the "things-in-themselves", Steiner classifies as the "percept which the subject has of the object." Kant's subject who is perceiving the objects, Steiner calls the third part, or the subject. We must get to the "thing-in-itself" in some conceptual manner so the fourth element of Kant is "the concept which relates the percept to the object in itself." Without an argument for "things-in-themselves" Kant could not speak of them philosophically.

Steiner comments that the dualist wishes to find a dynamically real connection between "things-in-themselves" as well as the conceptual connections we find among the perceived world through thinking. The dualist will place the former as something happening outside our consciousness, and the latter as happening within our consciousness. This is exactly what Kant does. The noumenal world, the world of the "things-in-themselves" is never in the reach of our consciousness. All that we do perceive Kant calls the phenomenal world. The perceived world is due to the events in the noumenal world.

The incoherency here is, that if one would point to a real relationship between the "things-in-themselves" in the noumenal world and our appearances in the perceived world, one must do this conceptually. We may not yet base this thinking activity on the "things-in-themselves" because we can never become aware of the "things-in-themselves". The dynamically real relationship between "things-in-themselves" must first be created ideally, or conceptually. It is not the rules of our thinking that are parasitic on the rules of the relation of the "things-in-themselves", but the "things-in-themselves" are parasitic on our thinking (as are the rules of our thought). To illustrate this one may make an analogy. One may think that we bribe our parents so that they will love us. Our parents love us so they give us money. We may then take this money and bribe our parents. One may conclude that our parents love us because we bribe them. But to begin with, our parents must love us with no bribe. Likewise, we must first think without "things-in-themselves" existing (this is a concept that needs to be formed by thinking). If there is to be validity for making the claim that the "things-in-themselves" do exist, then there must be a perceptual content for them. Since Kant claims that we can never perceive the "things-in-themselves", it follows that they are merely empty concepts which must be vanquished from the field of thought.

Kant might say that the "things-in-themselves" are nevertheless present behind our appearances. As Kant says,

What we have meant to say is that all our intuition is nothing but the representation of appearance; that the things which we intuit are not in themselves what we intuit them as being, nor their relations so constituted in themselves as they appear to us, and that if the subject, or even only the subjective constitution of the senses in general, be removed . . . [all we perceive] would vanish. As appearances, they cannot exist in themselves, but only in us. What objects may be in themselves, and apart from all this receptivity of our sensibility, remains completely unknown to us.

Kant argues that our concepts can never reach the "things-in-themselves". One can only make knowledge claims about the world of appearance. In order for one to make this claim about the relation of the world of the "things-in-themselves" to the world of appearance, one must have some knowledge about the world of the "things-in-themselves". One must say, "things-in-themselves" are the cause of the world of appearance. This is incoherent with Kant's claim that we can know nothing of the "things-in-themselves".

Kant might claim that we can have beliefs in the existence of the "things-in-themselves". But it is our thinking that must be the ground for belief and our thinking has shown this concept to be incoherent. The only reasons left for Kant to make this claim are either a mistake in thinking or dogmatic reasons. "Things-in-themselves" are useful for other parts of his philosophy. The concept of "things-in-themselves" has absolutely no philosophical justification.


When we are children our parents put training wheels on our bicycles which set limits to where we may ride. The training wheels help us to feel safe and help us to adjust to the new activity of riding a bicycle. One day we remove the training wheels and find that we ride our bicycles even better without them and can now explore terrain that was closed to us before. We may hang up our training wheels with pride and a touch of nostalgia. Philosophers have used the concept of the "thing-in-itself" similarly. 

In Steiner's investigation of Kant and Hume it has been found that Kant's dualism is incoherent and that Hume's skepticism has no ground. The insights offered by Steiner lead one to the perception of thinking itself. Thinking is found to be an activity filled with will and feeling that is not fettered to the chains of space or time. As the modern age becomes more technically advanced, it grows ever important for mankind to achieve with certainty, knowledge of its own inner spiritual essence. From ancient Greece beckons Socrates, "Man, know thou thyself." Rudolf Steiner's epistemological work offers this possibility.




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